Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nissim Ezekiel: Modernity

The austerity of Ezekiel's poetic art, the condensation of his style, the economical precision of his language, the impressiveness of imagery, the sharpness of his wit and irony, the contemporarity of his subject matter - all these things immediately render him a modern poet. Modernism as a literary movement which reached its height in Europe between 1900 and 1920s, with the writings of Nissim Ezekiel, it began spreading in India. Two of the Nissim Ezekiel's poems: "Night of the Scorpion" and "The Patriot" bears the evidence of Ezekiel's modernity. Both thematically and structurally, these poems are modern poems. Before bringing out the elements of modernity, we need to know what we mean by modernity and what the characteristics of modernity are.

Literay Scholar Peter Childs sums up: "There were paradoxical if not opposed trends towards revolutionary and reactionary positions, fear of the new and delight at the disappearance of the old, nihilism, and fanatical enthusiasm, creativity and despair." These oppositions are inherent in Modernity.

The other characteristics that Modernity carries with are given below:

# General Characteristics:
01. Free Verse
02. Narrative
03. Juxtaposition
04. Classical Allusion
05. Borrowing from other culture and language
06. Conventional use of Metaphor
07. Multiple Narrative Point
08. Isolation
09. Lack of Faith
10. Criticism of Life
11. Complexity and Variety

# Thematic Characteristics
01. Breakdown of social norms and cultural sureties.
02. Dislocation of meaning and sense from its normal context
03. Disillusionment
04. Product of the metropolis, of cities and urbanscapes.
05. Stream of Consciousness.

Modernity in Nissim Ezekiel:
As T.S Eliot remarks complexity and variety are the characteristics of modernity, these are sufficiently displayed in the poems of Nissim Ezekiel.

# Complexity is found is the poem, Night of the Scorpion, the title of the poem is in some ways deceptive. It leads us to believe we are in for a frightening and a dramatic tale with a scorpion taking centre stage. In fact, the poem is not about the scorpion at all, but about the reaction of different people to its sting.

Again in the same poem, the first stanza does in the line "After twenty hours it lost its sting." This line could be read into two different ways: the most common interpretation is that after 20 hours, despite "every curse and blessing" it literary stops hurting. Another interpretation is that the mother dies; after twenty hours of agony it lost its sting as she could not feel anything. However, these lines are deceptive and cause friction in mind and thus this exposes Ezekiel's complexity, that is to say it is the exposure of modernity.

# Free verse is one of the most common features of modernity. Modern poets follow free verse style to decorate their poems. In the poems of Nissim Ezekiel, we see the use of free verse. The poems Night of the Scorpion and The Patriot are written in free verse. This type of poetry has little or no rhyme scheme, regular pattern of rhymes, or line lengths. As the lines from Night of the Scorpion are:

“I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion.
Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice.”

We don't find any rhyme at the end of the line and we find variation of metres in different lines. In the poem, The Patriot, he says

“I am standing for peace and non-violence.
Why world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,”

Here also there is no coherence of metres and rhymes.

# As the tendency of the modern poets is to isolate themselves from the rest of the society, we see in Nissim Ezekiel's poetry that he wants to isolate himself or wants to live apart from others. In Night of the Scorpion when his mother was stung by a scorpion and the people around their house were gathering he perhaps wanted their departure by saying,

“More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, more insects, and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through, groaning on a mat.”

# Ezekiel's poetry is a criticism of life. He is most famous for his wry commentaries on contemporary India often writing in an exaggerated Indian English, for example the overuse of the present continuous tense. The poem The Patriot is in many ways typical to Ezekiel: a wry view of patriotism mixed with some fairly sarcastic political commentary. He says,

“I am standing for peace and non-violence.
Why world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understanding.
Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct,
I should say even 200% correct,
But modern generation is neglecting-
Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.”


As a critic of his age he shows the superstitions of his age in his poetry. In Night of the Scorpion, we see, when his mother was stung by a Scorpion, the neighbours poured into her hut in offer advice and help. They said that by the endless pain, the sins of her previous birth would be "burned away" and her next birth's suffering would be decreased. These are the common superstitions and belief of common people. And we see, the neighbours tried to cure her and her husband tried "every curse and blessings," but despite these things time proves to be the best healer: "after twenty hours it lost its sting"

# Modern poets are generally conscious about the problems prevailing in the society and they try to bring out the problems. And so, in his poems, he tries to show the problems of the society, of the country and of the world. In The Patriot he says,

“What you think of prospects of world peace?
Pakistan behaving like this,
China behaving like that,
It is making me really sad, I am telling you.
Really, most harassing me.
All men are brothers, no?”

It seems that he is much more concerned not only about the problems of his own country but also of the whole world.

# Indian English: he prefers contemporary Indian English to write his poetry which exposes his modernity. In his writing we find the following features of Indian English.

A) Unusual Progressive form: Indian people use progressive form to express their normal expression but according to some grammarians some words can not be used in the progressive form. But he has used these words expressing the progressive form:

I am standing for peace and non violence (The Patriot)
I am simply not understanding... (The Patriot)

Here standing and understanding have been name progressive.

B) Double Verb: No other writer in English either native or foreign has used double verbs in poetry. He writes:

Why world is fighting fighting (The Patriot)


In the concluding part we can say that Nissim's poems are true modern poems considering both content and form. And Nissim Ezekiel is a true modern set expressing in his poetry the very idea of modernity.

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